CHAMPAIGN – When the owner of Papa Del's Pizza opened his first store, his father gave him a slice of advice.
"It's a tough business," Bob Monti recalls his dad saying. "You might want to do it 10 years and get out of it."
Generations of customers are glad Monti paid no attention to that counsel. Come Sunday, Papa Del's Pizza will be 40 years old.
Monti said it wasn't clear at the outset Papa Del's would be around for even a decade.
"The first year was kind of tough as a new business. I think we made $92 profit in October, November and December," he said. "But once we got our feet wet, it was better."
The first store was at 601 S. Wright St. – the southwest corner of Wright and Healey streets. Besides serving pizza and pasta, the store dished up chicken, shrimp, Reubens and hamburgers.
At the time, Papa Del's thick-crust was thicker than it is now. It was made in cast-iron skillets – and took longer to bake.
To compete, the business eventually went to aluminum bakeware, shaving 10 to 15 minutes off the cooking time, Monti said.
Papa Del's first day of business – Oct. 24, 1970 – coincided with a home football game that pitted the Illini against the No. 1 Ohio State Buckeyes.
Illinois lost 48-29, and "we just got slaughtered," Monti said. But in a good way, with crowds that outpaced Papa Del's capacity to feed them.
Monti was no stranger to the pizza business. His grandfather operated a restaurant in western Chicago, and his dad had a pizza business in Lombard.
With eight kids, Monti's dad had "a lot of free labor." Monti began making pizzas 10 years before opening Papa Del's.
Monti came to the University of Illinois in 1964 and joined Phi Sigma Epsilon fraternity. His majors included physical education, biology, botany – "I jumped around" – and he had to lay out some semesters, working a couple jobs in Chicago, to pay for school.
Eventually, he developed a recipe for pan pizza and tried it out on his fraternity brothers. Then he arranged to take over the lease for the building where Olympic Pizza had been.
The name Papa Del's stemmed from Monti's fraternity brothers, who nicknamed him "Del Monte," after the popular brand of canned vegetables.
The "Papa" part stemmed from the fact he had been in the fraternity six years and was president.
"I was mothering the younger guys, and they started calling me 'Pops,'" Monti said. "Pops and Del went together that way."
Monti opened up a second location on Green Street in 1975 for pickup and delivery and added a dining room there in 1989. He closed the original store on Wright Street in 1994 but opened a new location at Village at the Crossing in southwest Champaign in 2009.
Through the years, he's seen Domino's and Little Caesar's come and go – and come back again. He's seen Godfather's go from stand-alone stores to convenience stores. Other pizza parlors – Pizza World, Pagliai's, Mr. G's, among them – have disappeared from Champaign-Urbana.
Tastes have changed too. Initially, 70 percent of the pizzas ordered were pan pizzas.
"Now we're down to probably 55 percent pans," he said.
His theory why thin-crust has grown more popular: "more goodies and less starch."
Deliveries have fallen off a little, a trend Monti attributes to the economy. He regards Papa Del's as being "at the high end of the scale."
"When people want to impress their girlfriend, they come to Papa Del's. If they want something fast, they call the fast guys," he said.
Another noticeable change over the years: the labor. Papa Del's employs 80 to 90 people, most of them part-time.
"During the '70s, everyone was poor, no one was fancy, it was a different work ethic," he said. "Now it costs so much to go to school. Some students have more money and are less willing to work. If there's a party going, on, it's sometimes more important than coming to their job," he said.
Like his dad, Monti put his kids to work in the business, usually starting them out at 11 years old, when they could bus tables or serve as hosts.
Daughters Andrea and Meredith work at the Village at the Crossing store, son Rob makes pizza and daughter Victoria, who now lives in Phoenix, worked her way through school at Papa Del's.
To celebrate 40 years in business, Monti plans to run newspaper coupons for $5 off on large, extra-large and party-size pizzas.
But he's sure he won't repeat the mistake made in 1980, when Papa Del's marked its 10th anniversary.
"I charged 1970 prices for the pizza, and I had to take the phones off the hook, we got so far behind," he said.